Skip to main content

Why Tim Duncan was the best leader in NBA history


The same year Tim Duncan was picked No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft, he published a paper on a remarkably unique theory of leadership, alongside a Wake Forest University professor and a handful of undergraduate students. Buried inside an obscure 1997 clinical psychology textbook called Aversive Interpersonal Behaviours, there lies a chapter titled “Blowhards, Snobs, and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism”. It is now obvious that Duncan from the beginning of his career, abided by the philosophy of this paper.

The Big Fundamental

The paper concluded that self-centered people who project arrogance through their speech and body language tend to be viewed less favorably by others and can weaken a group’s cohesion. This is fascinating since Duncan’s teammates dubbed him the Big Fundamental in honor of his selfless, no flair all-around game. 

Compare the description from the published paper with how Sam Walker summed up the power forward’s demeanor in The Captain Class, professing that Duncan “never asked for special privileges, never skipped practices, never bristled at being dressed down after poor performances. On the court, he didn’t hang on the rim after dunks or stare down opponents. Gregg Popovich, the Spurs coach, once said Duncan didn’t have any ‘MTV’ about him. When a twenty-two-year-old Duncan showed up to receive the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award in 1998, he wore mesh shorts and a ratty T-shirt and barely cracked a smile. He seemed to have no interest in being singled out or telling his story to the world. 'You guys just write what you want to write', Duncan once told reporters. ‘Stop trying to analyze me’”.

That’s Tim Duncan. Labeled as the ‘Most Boring Superstar in NBA History’ by much of the media, the fans never found and perhaps never had anything to gravitate to other than watching winning basketball. It’s no secret that he was never close to the top players in jerseys sold, and his NBA Finals were frequently some the least-watched of the era. Duncan was always misunderstood by the fans but never by his teammates (or his competitors.) 

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Tim switched positions throughout his career depending on what was best for the team. Agreed to be paid less so they could bring in LaMarcus Aldridge at a near 4:1 salary ratio. He won five championships and made the playoffs in all 19 of his seasons. He won more games than any player ever for one team. And despite his long career, Duncan’s name has only been spoken about with the highest regard by every single one of his teammates.

When Tony Parker tried out his comedy routine at Tim Duncan’s jersey retirement, he said only one thing with a straight face, “he makes everyone around him better and that’s the definition of a superstar”. It would have been funnier if he just said, ‘thanks for taking it easier in the ‘07 Finals sweep and letting me get a FMVP’, but hey, that moment’s gone. 

"The functional approach"

It’s crazy to think that Tim Duncan dreamed of becoming a champion swimmer until Hurricane Hugo destroyed his local pool in 1989, pushing him towards a basketball-only in high school. But the truth was Timmy was built for a team sport. 

As a Harvard professor of social and organizational psychology, Richard Hackman labeled the term of leadership ‘the functional approach’. “From a functional perspective”, he wrote, “effective team leaders are those who do, or who arrange to get done, whatever is critical for the team to accomplish its purpose.” 

Again, that’s Duncan. He was the type of guy that while Kobe Bryant was embracing a farewell tour, living up praises of adoration in a different city every night, Duncan would keep his imminent retirement a secret. The conclusions of his paper also speak to his testy relationship with Michael Jordan. It's as if Duncan used his Wake Forest thesis as a blueprint for how to be an effective teammate in a league where “narcissists” and “blowhards” were the lords of the realm. 

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton, guard Jrue Holiday, and forward Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Milwaukee Bucks to host youth programs as part of the NBA Abu Dhabi Games

Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks will be the first NBA teams to play in Abu Dhabi

Phoenix Suns' forward Jae Crowder defending Chicago Bulls' star DeMar DeRozan

Can the Chicago Bulls make a trade for disgruntled Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder?

Find out if the Chicago Bulls can acquire disgruntled Phoenix Suns small forward, Jae Crowder.

Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan with Lonzo Ball

Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan bracing for the entire season without Lonzo Ball

The Bulls are preparing themselves to be competitive while they wait on the health of starting guard Lonzo Ball. Here's what their head coach had to say about the matter.

Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd

"You can't say, 'This is the way I would do it'" — Jason Kidd explains why he never forced his players to emulate his playing style

Kidd's experience on the Lakers coaching staff has proven to be extrememly valuable in his evolution as a coach.

Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon

Greg Anthony singles out the most underrated part of Hakeem Olajuwon's on-court skillset

Everyone praises Hakeem's footwork. Greg Anthony praised his God-given instincts for the game.

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham and general manager Rob Pelinka

How the Los Angeles Lakers could take advantage of the NBA's new rule

The new NBA rule could benefit the Lakers if they implement a run-and-gun system.

North Carolina Tar Heels guard Michael Jordan

“No one knew me until then” — Michael Jordan revealed the most satisfying time of his basketball career

Michael Jordan will never forget his time in North Carolina because of the pressure he had to conquer to make a name for himself.